Hope and Choice
Divine right to choose: a demonstrator at the April
25 abortion-rights rally in Washington, D.C. Photo by:
the debate over abortion continues, pro-choice groups find surprising
new allies among the ranks of the religious faithful
the multitudes who attended the abortion-rights march and
rally Sunday in Washington, D.C., were hundreds–-possibly
thousands—of ordained clergy and lay people who proclaimed
both their religious faith and their belief in abortion rights.
They were Roman Catholics, Jews and Protestants. Some marched
with groups that have made religion the basis of their support
for legal abortion, including national organizations such
as Catholics for a Free Choice, and local groups, such as
the Pro-Choice Volunteers of Faith from Upper Hudson Planned
Parenthood in Albany. Other faith-based marchers went on their
own, stating personal religious beliefs as their reason for
Faith-based supporters of abortion rights represent a growing
phenomenon: people willing to publicly proclaim that religious
beliefs can coincide with advocacy for legalized abortion.
After decades of religion being identified most often with
the anti-abortion movement, the pro-choice faith movement
is gaining ground, says Barbara Kavadias, director of field
services for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Some 200 different religious organizations participated in
the march, either as delegations or as cosponsors, Kavadias
says. That number is far more than participated in comparable
marches in Washington in 1989 and 1992.
had clergy from as far away as Alaska,” she says. “People
came out of the woodwork. People stepped up to the plate.”
Many of these faith-based supporters of abortion rights have
been galvanized by the violence at abortion clinics in the
1990s, when bombings and shootings resulted in numerous deaths
and injuries to clinic doctors, escorts and staff, Kavadias
Others have become active in response to state and federal
court decisions that have steadily restricted access to abortion.
Still others are reacting to new legislation and regulations
crafted by the Bush administration that have been touted as
protections for pregnant women but are seen by many as thinly
veiled efforts to define a fetus as a child. Among the Bush
initiatives: the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which made
it a federal crime to destroy or harm the fetus during the
commission of a crime against a pregnant woman; and a Health
and Human Services regulation that expanded a health-insurance
program intended for children so that it also covers a fetus.
Some of the clergy active in the abortion rights movement
today worked to legalize abortion 35 and 40 years ago, but
withdrew from those activities once the 1973 Roe v. Wade
decision affirmed the right to an abortion, because they thought
their work was done. Now, some of those early activists are
joining younger clergy to keep abortion legal.
think that more clergy and lay leaders feel that if they do
not speak out, far greater injustices will occur in this country,”
Kavadias says. “They already see the impact of having been
a little quieter for a few years.
The people who marched in Washington represented a range of
ages, experiences and backgrounds. Among them was Barbara
Ullman of Claverack. She is a past board member of Upper Hudson
Planned Parenthood, and she is a Jewish woman who attends
a Conservative synagogue in Albany.
On Sunday, she stood quietly with a friend among the throngs
of people waving signs, and reached back to the ancient beliefs
of her faith to explain her support for abortion rights.
religious tradition teaches me that life is sacred, and I
protect that tradition when I make sure that I will support
women whose lives would be endangered by carrying a pregnancy
to term,” Ullman says. “People who are against abortion use
that as a justification against us—they say, ‘You are not
religious; you are not moral.’ Who are they to say that to
Yet many people of faith could never reconcile their beliefs
to support abortion rights. For some, that decision is individual;
for others, it comes from the dictates of their religion.
Among the most prominent faith-based opponents of abortion
in New York is the Catholic Conference of New York State,
representing the bishops.
Speakers from Catholics for a Free Choice stood front and
center at the podium in Washington Sunday, but the Roman Catholic
Church remains unequivocally and absolutely opposed to abortion.
primary principle of Catholic social teaching is respect for
human life, because every life is made in the image of God,”
says Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities at
the Catholic Conference. “These are absolute moral teachings
of the church—fundamental church doctrine—and the absolute
evil of abortion is clear.”
Asked if it would be possible for a Catholic to support abortion
rights and still be considered a member of the church in good
standing in the eyes of the bishops, Gallagher responds simply,
As the hundreds of thousands of people began gathering on
the Mall Sunday, the Rev. Tom Davis—a United Church of Christ
minister, retired Skidmore College chaplain and associate
professor of religion there—joined other faith-based marchers
for a worship service.
Abortion-rights advocacy has defined Davis’ career. Now 69,
Davis and his late wife, the Rev. Betsy Davis, belonged to
the Clergy Consultation Service for Abortion, a volunteer
network of about 1,500 clergy members that operated from 1967
to 1973. The Consultation Service referred women to doctors
who would perform safe—albeit illegal—abortions.
Contrary to popular belief, the Clergy Consultation Service
was not underground; the local chapter was listed in the Capital
Region telephone directory, Davis said. As long as abortion
remained illegal, there was little outcry against those trying
to make it legal.
was when women got the right to make the decision that people
got upset,” Davis says. “There have always been people who
have had honest conscientious objections to abortion, and
I respect them, but I think sexism has a lot to do with it.”
The Clergy Consultation Service for Abortion has long since
disbanded; now, clergy working for abortion rights usually
do so through statewide or national organizations. Among those
groups is Clergy for Choice, an affiliate of the national
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington.
Some of the clergy who support abortion rights are following
contemporary policies of their churches as well as personal
beliefs. Linda Hoddy, the minister of the Unitarian Universalist
Congregation of Saratoga Springs, says she would like abortion
to be rare, but safe and legal when used. Her public declaration
of that belief is buttressed by the Unitarian Universalist
Society, which has supported legal abortion for 30 years.
see the need to speak out. I do not want to see us go back
to women dying of illegal abortions,” says Hoddy, who traveled
to Washington for the march. “I think for some denominations,
it’s very difficult to speak out.”
Sometimes, a clergy member’s decision to support abortion
rights is an obligation, not simply a moral choice.
The Capital Region members of Clergy for Choice include the
Rabbi Don Cashman of B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation in Albany,
who has been active in the abortion rights movement for 20
years. Teachings in Jewish religious law that support abortion
rights can be traced to biblical times, Cashman said, built
around the belief that the life and health of the mother takes
precedence over the fetus.
His congregation and many others, especially in the Reform
Jewish tradition, not only support abortion rights but expect
their rabbi to, Cashman says.
for me, it’s a freedom of religion thing,” he says. “My reading
of Jewish law is that it requires an abortion if the mother’s
life is in danger.”
Two years ago, Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood in Albany founded
Pro-Choice Volunteers of Faith as a way for lay people to
have an organized role in the abortion advocacy movement.
are many national faith-based groups; most of them are clergy-centered,”
says Blue Carreker, vice president for public affairs and
marketing at Upper Hudson. “We really wanted to provide an
avenue for people of faith to support each other and speak
The group has about 15 members from the Capital Region. Among
their activities so far: the production of a workshop, Promoting
Healthy Sexuality, which is available to congregations, youth
groups and community organizations.
Members say the group can offer an avenue for discussion of
different views in the abortion debate.
understand this point of view of the other side, most of what
they say,” says Jack Atwater of Grafton, a retired chemical
engineer and a member of the First Unitarian Universalist
Society of Albany. He was one of several Pro-Choice Volunteers
of Faith who traveled to Washington last week for the march.
think there’s always a chance for some reconciliation, but
I don’t think it will ever be total,” Atwater says. “I have
a great deal of respect for people whose consciousness tells
them abortion is wrong.”
Dwight Smith of Poestenkill, a member of the First Presbyterian
Church in Albany since 1968, also attended the march. Smith’s
longtime advocacy for family planning and abortion rights
stems from his childhood memories of his mother, a public-health
nurse who once taught a course on venereal disease in the
1920s at Yale Medical School “because none of the medical
staff would touch it,” Smith recalled.
Smith has been a volunteer escort at Planned Parenthood in
Troy for five years, and the protests he has encountered there
by Christian anti-abortion activists gave him an opportunity
to ponder the chasm between the two sides long before he headed
to Washington last weekend.
only way I approach it is to say to myself, ‘These people
are sincere believers. I don’t believe what they believe,’”
Smith says. “They have co-opted the word ‘Christian’ to mean
themselves only. We’re both fallible, and we’re both believing
that we’re right, and it’s not us who’s going to make the
final decision on that, of course.”